Experts: SEC expansion imminent whether Texas, Oklahoma or others

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey speaks to the media during the 2021 SEC Football Kickoff Media Days on July 19,2021 at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala. (Jimmie Mitchell/SEC)
Caption
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey speaks to the media during the 2021 SEC Football Kickoff Media Days on July 19,2021 at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala. (Jimmie Mitchell/SEC)

Credit: SEC

ATHENS – If Oklahoma and Texas are going to join the SEC, it’s going to take a major commitment from Mickey Mouse.

Disney, the parent company of ABC and ESPN, just brokered a deal in December to take over as the SEC’s primary broadcast partner when the league’s current agreement with CBS expires after the 2023 season. That new pact was reported to be worth $3 billion – or $300 million a year for 10 years – for the SEC.

And the 14 existing members were quite happy with that arrangement, which guarantees SEC athletic directors substantial revenue for their budgets over the next decade. So, while everybody certainly would be thrilled about the athletic and academic clout the Longhorns and Sooners would bring to the league, SEC teams are not going to welcome them if it means a smaller piece of the pie.

So, then, here comes a much a bigger pie.

“We have a magic word in our business -- it’s called ‘renegotiation,’” said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports. “Nothing’s going to happen unless you increase the value of the deal and make everybody happy.”

Just to receive the same-sized piece, the addition of Texas and Oklahoma means Disney would have to sweeten their deal by about $50 million a year. But it’s unlikely that a new arrangement gets done without added incentive.

“If Texas and Oklahoma join the SEC, it will be the AFC, the NFC and the SEC,” said Vince Thompson, chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based sports marketing agency MELT. “Other than the NBA (and NFL), it will be third-most powerful sports entity in North America.”

SEC schools currently get $42 million to $46 million each from the league’s annual distribution. Thompson sees that number rising to maybe $60 to $80 million with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma when also factoring in additional revenues from bowls and the College Football Playoff.

The Houston Chronicle, citing Big 12 sources, reported Wednesday that Texas and Oklahoma have approached the SEC about joining the league. That would expand the conference from 14 to 16 teams. Since then, a number of media outlets citing industry sources are saying it could happen within the next two weeks.

The involved parties haven’t exactly shot it down.

Attending Football Media Days in Birmingham, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said, “we’re here to focus on the 2021 season” and otherwise declined comment.

Texas issued a statement that said, “speculation swirls around collegiate athletics. We will not address rumors or speculation.”

Oklahoma echoed that sentiment. “The college athletics landscape is shifting constantly. We don’t address every anonymous rumor.”

For any of this to happen, it will take a majority vote of the SEC’s members. The SEC’s constitution requires a three-fourths vote from the league’s CEOs (presidents/chancellors). That would mean 11 of 14.

There already are some dissenters.

“We want to be the only SEC team from Texas,” A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said on SEC Network. “There’s a reason Texas A&M left the Big 12 — to stand alone and have our own identity. That’s our feeling.”

If Oklahoma and Texas leave the Big 12, it will be just the first domino in what’s expected to be a seismic shift in college football. The sport already has absorbed the onset of name, image and likeness and player free agency via the NCAA’s transfer portal. The expansion of the College Football Playoff to 12 teams now appears to be a foregone conclusion.

All the changes are connected to the expiration of college football’s current TV deals over the next couple of years. That appears to be hastening the long-discussed formation of super conferences and a realignment of the college football landscape.

“This is not a new topic,” said Pilson, who has run his own TV media company, Pilson Communications, since leaving CBS in 1995. “The question of Big 12 schools going to the Pac-10, now the Pac-12, was happening five or eight years ago. I suspect with the new round of television packages coming up for discussion there will be a lot of that going on. … I think we’re going to see another realignment.”

Pilson suspects that Oklahoma and Texas might also be considering a move to the Pac-12, a conference which is in much greater need for their services. In either case, their exit would be a death knell for the Big 12. Its broadcast arrangement with Fox and ESPN expires in 2023.

Count Thompson among those that see Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC as a done deal.

“There is no accident in the timing of this story breaking,” he said. “It’s no secret that Sankey is basically driving this ship, and he’s been driving it for a while, he and Disney. I believe it’s a fait accompli that it’s going to happen, and it’s already been orchestrated. The Big 12 splinters and goes away, and then Sankey leads the other four conferences away from the NCAA.

“There’s a lot of chess being played here, and Sankey has spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill lately. This is very calculated, and it’s right out of Mike Slive’s playbook.”

Slive, the late SEC commissioner under whom Sankey tutored, oversaw the most-recent SEC expansion that brought in Missouri and Texas A&M in 2012. The league expanded to 12 teams with the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina under Roy Kramer in 1992.

At the center of each expansion was ESPN, which is owned by Disney. The deals were exponentially larger each time.

The next one figures to be huge.

“It fits in perfectly with their move to the streaming platforms,” Thompson said. “It’s a content-acquisition strategy. You put Texas and Oklahoma in the SEC, now you’re forcing everybody into ESPN-Plus.”

Said Pilson: “The central thing is sports television remains the most efficient way for sponsors to reach customers. That’s what drives our business. As long as that’s true, you’re going to see rights fees go up and the costs get passed along to advertisers. Sports remains a great draw, a magnet, and it supports the business.”